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Analysing the relatedness of bacterial plasmids – the circles of non-chromosome DNA carried by bacteria

14 June 2020

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All over the world, doctors are struggling with a rise in antibiotic-resistant ‘superbug’ infections – a problem that is becoming even more concerning in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though COVID-19 is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, many patients go on to develop bacterial lung infections (pneumonia), which may be more dangerous than the initial viral infection if it can’t be treated. Bacteria usually become resistant to antibiotics thanks to genes carried on small circles of DNA known as plasmids, which get swapped between bacterial cells to spread resistance. This image shows the relationships between 10,000 different plasmids based on their genetic code, preferred bacterial hosts and other key characteristics, with more similar plasmid populations clustering close together and less related ones further away. Researchers can now apply this grouping technique to newly discovered plasmids, revealing important information about the genes they carry and how they’re likely to spread.

Written by Kat Arney

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BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences until Jul 2023, it is now run independently by a dedicated team of scientists and writers. The website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biology, and its influence on medicine. The ever-growing archive of more than 4000 research images documents over a decade of progress. Explore the collection and see what you discover. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.

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